Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.06.11

Christoph Reusser, Vasen für Etrurien. Verbreitung und Funktionen attischer Keramik im Etrurien des 6. und 5. Jahrhunderts v. Chr.   Zürich:  Akanthus, 2002.  Pp. 208; 272.  ISBN 3-905083-17-5.  $75.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Adolfo J. Dominguez, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid (
Word count: 1711 words

This book is the unmodified habilitation thesis presented by Reusser (hereinafter R.) at Bern University in 1995. Its main purpose is to consider Attic pottery of the 6th and 5th centuries BC found in Etruria from the point of the view of the buyer and user, rather than that of the seller or the trader. This is the first merit of this book, balancing the recent surfeit of studies aimed at showing that Attic pottery was no more than ballast in cargo vessels, which, although it could be partly true, does not explain the presence of thousands of Attic vases in Etruria and all over the Mediterranean.1 A second good point of the book is the attempt to consider Attic pottery not only in Etruscan tombs but also in other contexts, namely in houses and sanctuaries. With this broad approach he aims to show how Attic pottery was used in every area of Etruscan life and after-life. At the same time, R. tries to put Attic pottery into context in order to analyze the way different social groups within Etruria used that pottery, thus rejecting some of the opinions commonly held about it. The Introduction (chapter I) deals with these and other issues of a more methodological nature.

Chapter II begins the analysis proper. R. establishes three different regions in order to take geographical differences into account: the Emilia, centered around Felsina/Bologna, Marzabotto and San Polo/Campo Serviola; the Arno valley, with centers such as Pisa, Fiesole and Volterra; the Val di Chiana, with Chiusi, Arezzo and Fiesole as the main centers. With the help of the maps in the second volume (maps 1-5 with their corresponding legends), R. explains the main features of each region and gives a very useful overview of Etruscan settlement in each of those territories, also taking into consideration smaller centers within them, duly mapped with appropriate symbols. The data related to each place, with the main bibliography, are conveniently arranged in Appendix 1, in the second volume. The chapter ends with a brief introduction to the issue of the mechanisms by which Attic pottery was distributed from the coast to inland regions; the lack of solid evidence forces R. to suggest different possible models for each region, taking into account the very probable existence of certain "central places" responsible for distribution to smaller centers. Some reflections on the possible existence of exchange based on reciprocity (at least in some cases) close the chapter.

Chapter III discusses Attic vases in Etruscan houses and sanctuaries. Here R. tries to answer one of the main questions he has posed, namely whether the use of Attic pottery in Etruria was generalized or restricted. His analysis of more than 80 find spots (shown in detail in Appendix 2, in the second volume) allows R. to observe that Attic pottery appears in a very similar quantity (and quality) in both big and small centers, on the coast and inland, in wealthy and in poorer houses. When percentages are available, R. observes that fine pottery constitutes only a small part of the crockery found in the houses, just as it did in Greece itself. Judging from the shapes most represented (cups and craters) in the best preserved contexts, Attic pottery seems mainly to have been used for banquets, although there are not enough data to suggest whether on a daily or a more occasional basis.

The presence of Attic pottery in sanctuaries poses the question of how it was used within them. After analyzing the 40 known sites (All the documentation is set out in Appendix 3, in the second volume) R. concludes that Attic pottery was used in Etruscan sanctuaries as offerings, as cultic ware and at the sacred banquets celebrated during cults. In addition, it is also clear that Attic pottery is widely present in every kind of Etruscan sanctuary, both coastal and inland, whether dedicated to a male or female divinity. The more representative shapes are also related to the celebration of banquets.

Chapter IV deals with Attic vases found in Etruscan tombs. Most Attic pottery found in Etruria has been discovered in cemeteries and tombs, although this is because scholars have paid more attention to tombs than dwellings. Accordingly, R. distributes the information taking into account the characteristics of the record; thus, he distinguishes main places (Vulci, Cerveteri, Bologna), small inland centers, emporia or colonies, small groups of tombs and isolated tombs, including here (but not in the appendices) a brief description of each site, giving the figures for Attic pottery found in each of them, distinguishing among techniques (Black figure, Red figure, Black glaze) and shapes. The analysis of each site is accompanied by charts and exhaustive footnotes. Besides the conclusions achieved, this chapter is very useful for its summary of the presence of Attic pottery in a series of representative places in Etruria. This data will be very welcome to scholars working on the trade in Attic pottery both in Etruria and in other parts of the Mediterranean.

The results of this chapter are of great interest; it seems clear that Attic pottery is widely represented both in main centers and in isolated tombs (and in all kinds of funerary situations in between), and vases of great quality are present even in minor centers.2 R. assures us that between 60 and 80% of all Etruscan tombs dating to the second half of the sixth and fifth centuries contained Attic pottery; the shapes present are varied, mainly cups, craters, amphorae and lekythoi. Besides, R. insists that Attic pottery was not bought solely to be used in tombs, as the previous chapters dedicated to houses and sanctuaries show and as ancient repairs would also indicate. The presence of those wares in so many places, cities and small centers, allows R. to affirm that Attic vases can no longer be considered luxury objects ("so kann die attische Keramik in Etrurien nicht als Luxusware bezeichnet werden", p. 119). A quick review of Etruscan social development allows R. to suggest that Attic pottery was used by aristocrats but also by "middle groups".3

Chapter V deals with the shapes of the Attic vases found in Etruria, and tables 1-21 in the second volume summarize the figures so far given in the previous chapters and appendixes. R.'s main conclusion is that there is a great similarity in the shapes found in tombs, houses and sanctuaries, irrespective of their location in relation to the coast or the main axis of communication. Another question raised concerns the existence of standard sets of Attic vases; thanks to the study of the Bologna necropolis (where tombs are mostly individual), R. has been able to suggest (at least for that city) an "ideal set" consisting of a crater (or amphora), a cup, a skyphos and an oinochoe; the set appears, without apparent differences, in tombs of men, women and children and remained virtually unchanged for 150 years. R. stresses, rightly in my opinion, that the shape of the vase was important to the Etruscan customer. Even more interesting is the fact that those shapes are also depicted on the walls of the painted tombs, which will be analyzed in chapter VII. The widespread use of this set also allows R. to suggest that the ideology of the symposium was widely adopted by the citizens of the Etruscan cities. Within this general outline, R. also observes some local differences in the use of Attic pottery and, in order better to evaluate this phenomenon, introduces some other cases outside Etruria (Eretria, Corinth, Paestum, Cumae, etc.); the conclusion is that in those other places there are also important differences in the use of Attic pottery in the tombs.

Chapter VI is devoted to the images depicted on the vases, where R. finds the same repertoires in the three contexts analyzed (tombs, houses, sanctuaries). The main subjects depicted on the Attic vases found in Etruria are: symposion and komos, warriors and battle scenes, images of athletes, Herakles, and Dionysian scenes. R. observes that, for the most part, neither the subjects nor the vases are specifically funerary and they do not seem to be gender-related; he concludes that the Athenian Kerameikos knew very well what subjects appealed to the Etruscan buyer.

Chapter VII studies the way Attic pottery was represented in a small group of tombs which had painted decoration on their walls. The images depicted are related to the symposion and the main result of R.'s analysis is that most of the vases depicted are found to be metal; the paintings also show true pottery vases (Appendix 5 in the second volume summarizes all the cases considered by R.).

Chapter VIII summarizes the eleven main results (theses as R. calls them) developed in the book.

The second volume comprises all the complementary materials associated with the book. I have already mentioned the maps, the appendixes and the tables, in relationship to the chapters to which they belong. In addition there is a series of 20 illustrations comprising the plans of the main places considered in the text, as well as two plates with photographs of two grave offerings and one plate showing the paintings in the Tomba dei Vasi Dipinti at Tarquinia.

An exhaustive bibliography (although updated only to 1995), several useful indexes (names and subjects, shapes and pottery classes, painters, potters and workshops, places) and concordances with Beazley's repertoires and with the corpora of Etruscan epigraphy make using the vast amount of information in the book reasonably easy. Summaries in Italian and English are given at the end of the book.

To sum up, this is a very important work, not only because of the theses developed in it, but also because an enormous amount of data is presented in an accessible manner and marshalled convincingly in support of the author's conclusions. This book ought to be obligatory reading for those scholars dealing with trade in Attic pottery both in Etruria and in other parts of the Mediterranean because in it R. successfully discards many current topics that are unsupported by evidence and, at the same time, proposes a coherent explanation for the use of that pottery in every aspect of Etruscan life.

This is a well-produced book, and I have not been able to detect any misprints or typographical errors at all.


1.   It is also true that in recent years more attention has been devoted to the use of Greek pottery within its context, both in the Greek and in the non-Greek worlds. I am thinking mostly of papers given at the Conferences Céramique et peinture grecques. Modes d'emploi, Paris 1995 (published Paris 1999) and Griechische Keramik im kulturellen Kontext, Kiel 2001 (forthcoming).
2.   The issue of the "quality" of the painters, and the references to works of outstanding quality (hochrangige Werke, p. 89) makes me uncomfortable because it is possible that we are projecting our aesthetic views, partly derived from the antiquarianism and connoisseurship of past centuries, onto the Etruscan world. This is not say that ancient Etruscans (or Thracians, Celts or Iberians) did not appreciate the "good" quality of some vases but, if this was so, how can we explain the "poor" quality of many of those vases which in many cases were also present in "wealthy" tombs? And, besides, if Attic vases were sometimes of such "good" quality, why did ancient tomb-robbers steal only the metal vases, leaving the Attic vases aside? These mistaken views about the use of Attic pottery in Etruria are rightly contested by R.
3.   The development of Etruscan society before the 6th and 5th centuries is addressed by R. very briefly (p. 120). Although I consider his conclusions to be wholly acceptable, the way "classical" Etruscans used Attic pottery may have been very different from the way Greek pottery (of non-Attic origin) was used in previous centuries. In any case, it is possible that the "democratization" of the use of imported pottery in Etruria was the result of an historical process in which only the aristocracy had originally had access to those imported items. However, only a study devoted to non-Attic pottery, carried out in the same exhaustive way as R.'s, could confirm this impression.

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